What is a root canal?

View our graphical explanation of root canal therapy here.

Many people dread root canals, because they don’t understand what the procedure is, or how much pain is involved. So what is a root canal?

To help you understand, look at teeth as living things. Living teeth have three layers. The outer layer is the enamel, and under that is the dentin. The innermost segment is a chamber and a network of canals in which are nerves and blood vessels. These canals are within the roots of the tooth, which are embedded in the jawbone.

A root canal, or RCT, becomes necessary when the nerves and blood system within the canals of the tooth becomes infected or is damaged by trauma. The most common reason for a root canal is infection – decay enters the tooth and gets into the chamber which contains the blood supply and nerves. Or there’s trauma: you were in a car accident, got hit with a baseball or got into a fight. Sometimes even excessive grinding and clenching of teeth can cause enough trauma, leading to teeth becoming non-vital.

The root canal procedure begins with the dentist removing the infected or traumatized portions of the tooth. The canals and pulp chamber are cleaned with tiny files as well as medicaments to disinfect the area. Root canal therapy on molars can take some time because there are more canals, sometimes difficult to access, and sometimes curved.

Once the canals are completely cleaned, disinfected, and free of infection, the dentist dries them out and fills them with gutta-percha – a rubber like compound.

Finally, a crown or like restoration is usually placed on the tooth to strengthen the tooth.